Cabinet kept in the dark as PM directs Biden-era Iran policy

No security cabinet meetings since election called on December 23 • ‘In this government, the cabinet practically didn’t function’

US President-elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: ANDREW HARNIK/YOAV DUDUKEVITCH/REUTERS)
US President-elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Diplomatic-Security Cabinet has not convened in over a month, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formulates his policies on the Iranian threat with a new US president who seeks to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.
A cabinet minister in the pro-Netanyahu bloc said on Sunday that there have not been any security cabinet meetings since the election was called on December 23, and no discussions at all of how to combat the Iranian nuclear threat with US President Joe Biden now in office. A former security cabinet minister confirmed that any changes or future challenges in the Biden era did not come up.
Two of the ministers posited that Biden would not be likely to address the Iranian threat soon, because of domestic issues in the US.
“The inauguration was just a few days ago. With all due respect to Israel and Iran, I think he’ll deal with coronavirus first,” the current cabinet minister said. “Therefore, it will take more time.”
Still, Netanyahu emphasized the Iranian threat in Sunday’s full cabinet meeting and, after congratulating Biden, said they will work together “to deal with our shared challenges, foremost of which is the Iranian threat.
“This week, we will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The [number of] victims of the Holocaust, six million from our nation, is a number we already passed in [the population of] the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “But there are those who seek to obliterate the State of Israel and say so openly, daily – and they are, of course, the ayatollahs in Iran.”
Iran seeks to kill the nearly seven million Jews in Israel by developing nuclear weapons, he added.
“When we speak of the victims of the Holocaust, we do not only remember them, but raise the main lesson of the Holocaust: When someone says he seeks to destroy you, take him seriously and get organized to prevent this destruction,” Netanyahu said. “That is what we are doing around the clock, and that is our first and foremost goal of the State of Israel.”
The remarks come at a time of increased tension in the region due to Iran’s continued aggression throughout the Middle East.
Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen, who is set to remain in the role until April and is a Netanyahu ally, is expected to be the first Israeli official to meet with Biden and his choice for CIA director William Burns next month. He is expected to present the latest intelligence from Israel on the Iranian nuclear threat, along with Israel’s position that any agreement with Iran must entirely stop the ayatollahs’ regime from enriching uranium, among other demands.
On Friday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz hinted that Netanyahu is trying to leave the security establishment out of major decisions.
“I will make sure that no one can get in the way of us protecting Israel’s security with tricks and attempts to bypass us in ways that endanger us,” Gantz said.
He followed that message with promising to “act to replace those who cannot be trusted with honest leadership that can be trusted to rehabilitate the country.”
Gantz also said that he knows many of the senior figures in the Biden administration from his time as Israel’s military attache in Washington.
“I am convinced that on important issues like Iran, I will find them to be attentive,” he said.
In late December, National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat sent a letter to Gantz that Netanyahu will decide Israel’s stance towards Iran, based on the NSC’s work. Gantz responded that the Iran portfolio is “not the private business of one person,” and the decisions must be made based on the estimates of the entire security establishment, and after discussion in the Security Cabinet.
An official with knowledge of the matter confirmed that Gantz expressed his opposition to Netanyahu running Israel’s Iran policy solo.
Meanwhile, Ben-Shabbat spoke with his American counterpart Jake Sullivan on Saturday night, and they agreed to continue to discuss Iran, advance the Abraham Accords and other topics.
The former security cabinet minister said that there are essentially two security establishments working in parallel. The Security Cabinet hears from the Defense Ministry, whereas Netanyahu and the smaller circle around him do things like sign peace treaties and handle major international matters.
A third former minister said that “in this government, the cabinet practically didn’t function. We didn’t talk about almost anything. The prime minister, defense minister, everyone did their own thing.”
Trump administration officials would go straight to Netanyahu, the ex-minister said, but the Biden administration may be more likely to go through the regular, official channels, such as the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry.